Strength Exercises for Lower Back Spinal Arthritis

If you are accustomed to leading an active lifestyle, adjusting to osteoarthritis in your low back may present quite a challenge. For one thing, spinal arthritis symptoms tend to worsen when you stand up and when you lie down. In standing, the force of gravity compresses the spine, which can cause pain. With all that pressure, you may be wondering if there's anything you can do yourself to help relieve it. As it turns out, there is.

A woman doing a shoulder exercise
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"A strong core, as well as strong back muscles, are key to managing spinal arthritis pain while standing," says Debbie Turczan, MSPT, Clinical Specialist in Physical Therapy at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. "These are the muscles that provide dynamic stability."

For people with spinal arthritis (anywhere along the spine), Turczan recommends doing beginner Pilates exercises to help alleviate the compression that comes with standing. Turczan is also an advocate of water exercise.

Strong Muscles Help Manage Arthritis Symptoms

When you lie down, you have less muscular support for your spine, which may increase compression, and therefore, pain.

But if your muscles are strong, you benefit from their supportive properties even when you are resting. Strengthening the muscles may develop support for your back, which may help manage the progression of the disease, as well as your pain levels.

So what is the best way to get your back muscles strong to minimize compression on your spine? I spoke with Hagit Rajter, a physical therapist at the Joint Mobility Center at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, who gave me a simple exercise program designed to do just that.

Strengthening Program for Low Back Spinal Arthritis

First, a word of caution: You should work with your health provider to be sure these exercises are right for your condition, and that you are performing them correctly. The exact version, along with the exact number of sets and reps you should do, may vary according to your spinal condition, any other medical conditions you may have, and how fit you are. The following is for general reference only.

For these exercises, it's best not to do them in bed. Use a mat or blanket on the floor.

  • Lie supine (on your back) with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • On the exhale, bring your abs in toward your back.
  • Hold for 5 seconds.
  • Relax your abs and rest for 5 seconds. That's one rep.

Abdominal Draw-In Maneuver

In this simple exercise, all you do is engage your abdominal muscles by drawing them inward. Rajter recommends doing the ab 20-30 reps of this draw-in move once or twice per day to increase your core stability.

  • You can also do the ab draw-in with an accompanying pelvic tilt Here's how:
  • Lie on your back.
  • Inhale and arch your back, which means moving your pubic bone so that it points toward the floor (and not the ceiling or your head).
  • Hold this for 3 seconds.
  • Relax for 3 seconds.
  • Next, flatten your back and pull your belly toward the floor (and toward your spine).
  • Hold for 3 seconds, then relax for 3 seconds.
  • Rajter recommends doing 20-30 of this one to two times per day.
  • Lie supine.
  • Let your head and shoulders relax. You'll be using your lower body.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles and your glutes (the gluteus maximus muscle is located at the back of your pelvis, toward the bottom).
  • Raise your hips so that you form a straight line from knees to shoulders.
  • Hold this for 5 seconds.
  • Come down.

Glute Bridge

Do the glute bridge about 20 to 30 times, 1 to 2 times per day. (If you do this twice per day, then do 10-15 each time. In other words, don’t overdo it.)

  • Start on your hands and knees (all fours).
  • Position your trunk in one nice, long line. This is called a neutral spine.
  • Begin by lifting one arm up, but keep your trunk steady. Place it back down again.
  • When you're confident you can raise one arm without also moving your trunk, try it with a leg lift instead.
  • After you've mastered the leg lift, try lifting one arm and the opposite leg simultaneously, again keeping your trunk stationary.

Bird Dog With Arm And/Or Leg Elevation

Rajter cautions you to watch for any rounding or arching of your back as you move your appendages. This would mean your spine is no longer neutral.

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  1. DeWitt D. Spinal Osteoarthritis symptoms. Arthritis Health [internet]. Updated 26 Feb 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Email Interview. Turczan, Debbie, MSPT, Physical Therapist and Yoga teacher. New York City. September 2011.
  • Telephone Interview. Rajter, Hagit, PT, MSPT, Schroth Scoliosis Therapist, Cert. McKenzie Therapist, Advanced Clinician Physical Therapist, Joint Mobility Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City. September 2011.
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